Most of us put a fence up to give us a little more privacy from our neighbors and to provide some necessary security. We don’t do it to start a neighborhood war! Yet, fences seem to be a surprising prickly issue in suburbia.
Conflict is an inevitable part of living around people, but I am a firm believer in carefully choosing what hills you are willing to die on. The fence hill is not one of them, and since you’re here, I assume you’d agree with me. There is no accounting for the unreasonable nature of some folks, but the following tips should help with most complaining neighbors.
If the neighbor has a right to complain, be humble and remedy the situation as soon as possible. If they are incorrect, prove this without acting superior. If the neighbor is in the wrong, point this out but don’t rub their nose in it. If situations become heated, involve a mediator.
Common Fence-Related Complaints
Boundary lines – one of the biggest complaints is the one around whose boundary the fence is on. This is actually a big issue because of something called adverse possession.
Fence installation – the fact that you built a fence may rile up your neighbor. You may be well within your rights to do so, but because the fence does affect the neighbor, they can complain about its installment.
Fence maintenance and repair – if the fence is starting to look a little shabby or run down or it sustained damage in some way, a neighbor may feel like it depreciates their enjoyment of their own property or reduces its value.
Does the Complaint Have Merit?
Before assuming that your neighbor is simply being annoying, it is best to investigate their complaint and see if it has any merit. This can stop you from looking like a fool and avoid potential ugliness in the neighborhood.
Tips When You Are in the Wrong
We all make mistakes, and the best thing to do if you were in the wrong is to simply and humbly admit to it. Sometimes, all it takes is a simple conversation to clear up misunderstandings or disputes. Starting your conversation in an aggressive or confrontational way can end up causing more strife and discomfort than the original issue.
Let your neighbor know that you take the situation seriously and that you will make every effort to rectify it, no matter if your neighbor is friendly, serious, or even hostile.
If you are unable to rectify the situation immediately due to finances and/or time restraints, be honest. Most people are sympathetic and willing to provide some leeway when someone is in a bind. Come to a compromise on when it would be possible to rectify the situation and ultimately fit your budget and time constraints.
If your neighbor is still hostile, perhaps getting some mediation from your Home Owners’s Association (HOA) could help. The HOA can help provide clarity on rules and help come up with a solution for both parties.
You should note that if you put the fence up without permission from the HOA, you will likely have a few other problems to deal with as well!
If there is no HOA to get involved, then send some kind of formal communication to your neighbor, keeping a record of it on your side. State that you are now aware of the error and will address it by x date and in x manner. They may still complain every time they see you, but you can just remind them that you have committed to dealing with the problem and that you appreciate their patience.
Tips When You Haven’t Done Anything Wrong
If you are not in the wrong and your neighbor insists that you are, you need to come up with a way to point this out that will not cause aggression or hostility.
The best way to handle the situation will depend on various factors, including the following:
- How well you know the neighbor. If you know your neighbor well, inviting them over for a cup of coffee, a plate of biscuits and a frank conversation may be your best bet. Even if you don’t know them (i.e., there is no history—good or bad), this will be a good approach if they are open to it.
- Who can “verify” your lack of wrongdoing. For example, if you needed approval from the HOA to install a fence, you can call them in to confirm that you followed the correct procedure and your fence meets the requirements.
- The tone in which they made their complaint. If their complaint was made in an aggressive or confrontational manner, then chatting over the fence or in another open or public place may be best. This will hopefully help to deter any uncontrolled outbursts and can ensure that even if tensions fly, there are others around to intervene or act as witnesses.
Don’t become superior in pointing out their mistake; just give them the facts. You can even tell them a funny story about how something similar happened to you. This equalizes the playing field a bit. Usually, when presented with proof, your neighbor will back down even if they won’t admit to their error.
Tips for When the Neighbor Is Actually in the Wrong
There are situations wherein your neighbor is actually in the wrong. Now, depending on the individual, I would consider this to be the trickiest of all situations. When confronting someone about their wrongdoing only to be faced with the reality that the blame is actually reversed, some people can become extra aggressive.
Don’t rub it in their face or try to humble them with your evidence. Make it clear that they are wrong, i.e., don’t just fix it yourself. Well, you can choose this route, but be aware that the situation may be repeated over and over again until the neighbor realizes that they are wrong—sometimes, not even then. Let’s look at some examples.
It is a common practice to put up a shared fence along the boundary line and split the costs and/or maintenance duties. It may have been your neighbor’s turn to repaint the fence but they think that it is yours. In this case, you will have to prove that you did it last time. Dated receipts for purchasing the paint or an invoice from the person you hired to do it could be used.
An approach that you could use here is to show them the receipts/invoice from the last time and mention that when you were checking what paint to buy or who to hire, you noticed the date on the paperwork, which was actually the last time the fence was repaired, so it’s actually your neighbor’s turn.
The best thing to do in this situation would be to have some sort of written understanding or contract in place. This can save arguments and disagreements for the future.
Sometimes, a new neighbor will move in and start complaining about the state of a fence that you didn’t even put up. It may have been installed by the previous owners of the neighbor’s house, in which case, they are responsible for the upkeep.
You can inform them of this and if they don’t believe you, you can reach out to the previous owners (if you still have their contact details) or appeal to other neighbors for confirmation.
Perhaps you think the fence is in need of replacement. In this case, you can suggest installing a new one. You can pay for it alone so that it will, in fact, be your fence, or you can come to an arrangement and share the costs. Don’t forget to put that maintenance agreement in place!
Another possibility would be if their pet, child, or negligence caused some sort of damage or issue to the fence and now want you to help repair or replace the fence. It is best to have a frank and open discussion with your neighbor rather than simply become angry and defensive.
Explain to them that you don’t believe you are obliged to help fix the fence because the damage was caused by the neighbor (directly or indirectly). Don’t appear angry about the damage; just be firm in your refusal to shoulder the burden or repair or replacement. You may also have to resign yourself to the fact that the fence won’t get repaired.
Suggest a Mediator if Things Get Too Heated
If killing the situation with kindness and compromise still isn’t working, getting a mediator could be your best bet. So, this could be when:
- You were in the wrong and your neighbor becomes aggressive even though you have committed to remedying the situation.
- You did nothing wrong but your neighbor refuses to acknowledge this despite being presented with the information.
- Your neighbor is actually in the wrong and they refuse to acknowledge the fact or refuse to remedy the situation and it affects you (like their dog chewed through the fence and keeps getting into your yard).
You could look at asking an HOA board member to help put the matter to rest. Or another neighbor you both know and who can remain neutral.
If the problem persists even then, or if things get worse, hiring an official mediator may be in your best interests. However, this should be reserved for extreme circumstances.
Remember, your neighbor can complain all they want, but if you are certain that you have done all that you need to then their attempts to escalate the matter will be met with failure. It might come down to how much complaining you can put up with and how they complain.
If you greet your neighbor and for the next few years they respond with “when are you going to fix that fence?”, then you can just wave and continue on with your life. If they start pounding on your door every morning at dawn, then it’s time to take serious steps.